Generation X, Millennials, … a dangerous myth?

We naturally tend to put people in boxes.

While browsing the Internet (or other media), you certainly come across a lot of articles about generational differences at work. They talk about how to well manage this or that generation, how their members are supposed to see the work life, etc. This classification is more fictive than real. Moreover, it is harmful to work life!

What are we talking about? The concept of “generation” was born in sociology. Nevertheless, the notion spread on internet is rather a journalistic creation. This approach proposes to classify people according to their year of birth, as illustrated below. Because each generation grew up in a different historical context, they are supposed to present different behaviours and attitudes at work.

Generational differences: myth or reality?

The generational classification is very popular. But she collapses quickly in front of scientific results.

In a literature review, David Costanza and Lisa Finkelstein [1] conclude on the absence of clear empiric proofs for this generational classification. The authors add that there is no theoretical reason to think that this classification exists anyway! Similarly, Emma Parry and Peter Urwin [2] propose to simply ignore this approach, because of the lack of arguments to support it.

Of course, it would be exaggerated to say that no difference exist between generations. Last year (2018), Jeffrey Cucina and his colleagues [3] ran a study on several attitudes toward work (satisfaction, commitment, etc.). Differences exist, but they are weak, often negligible. In 2008, Melissa Wong and her colleagues [4] shown similar results concerning personality and motivation.

Globally, reality seems to be far from the stereotypes spread in the professional work. That is what concluded John Becton and his colleagues [5] in a psychological study of more than 8000 workers.

Indeed, generational differences are stereotypes and they can bring harmful abuses in work life.

A dangerous approach

The differences we perceived between generations are broader than they are in reality. That was demonstrated Scott Lester and his colleagues [6], by evaluating actual and perceived differences between generations concerning their work preferences (teamwork, autonomy, security, flexibility, etc.). In fact, our perception of generations is biased. Considering Millennials to be obsessed by their self-image is like telling a woman that she is less performant in math than a man!

Maintaining this approach which does not really exist is harmful. As said by Annick van Rossem [7], professor at the Hogeschool Universiteit in Brussel, this approach generates stereotypes and prejudices. By creating social categories, it forces us to classify our colleagues between “people who are like me” and “people who aren’t like me”. It brings discrimination both in recruitment and management.

Conclusion

Concerning work, the distinction between generations falls apart in front of scientific investigations. Although differences exist, they are weak, negligible. The differences we perceive are largely overrated. Moreover, this approach leaves the way open to stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination.

But the problem is bigger! The (pseudo-)theories which, underlie this biased approach, brings legitimacy to prejudices and discrimination. They pave the way to them through formations, infographics and conferences. We living in an era where a lot of people are fighting for equality and this kind of approach is a step backwards.

Why not consider each person as unique and complex, rather than a member of a stereotypical category? Is that not a more efficient and fair approach to understand others? I think it is!

References

  1. Costanza, D. P., & Finkelstein, L. M. (2015). Generationally Based Differences in the Workplace: Is There a There There? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8(3), 308–323.
  2. Parry, E., & Urwin, P. (2011). Generational Differences in Work Values: A Review of Theory and Evidence. International Journal of Management Reviews, 13(1), 79–96.
  3. Cucina, J. M., Byle, K. A., Martin, N. R., Peyton, S. T., & Gast, I. F. (2018). Generational differences in workplace attitudes and job satisfaction. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 33(3), 246–264.
  4. Wong, M., Gardiner, E., Lang, W., & Coulon, L. (2008). Generational differences in personality and motivation: do they exist and what are the implications for the workplace? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), 878–890.
  5. Becton, J. B., Walker, H. J., & Jones-Farmer, A. (2014). Generational differences in workplace behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(3), 175–189.
  6. Lester, S. W., Standifer, R. L., Schultz, N. J., & Windsor, J. M. (2012). Actual Versus Perceived Generational Differences at Work. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(3), 341–354.
  7. Van Rossem, A. H. D. (2018). Generations as social categories: An exploratory cognitive study of generational identity and generational stereotypes in a multigenerational workforce. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

French PhD in social psychology ● Writing about inclusion, diversity and discriminations, in the light of social sciences.